Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Working with anger

(With thanks to Dolly, who has given me some excellent blog prompts lately, do keep them coming!)

Anger is not an emotion that women, and female presenting people such as myself are often allowed to express without censure. Men are allowed to be angry, and tragically it’s often the only emotion men are allowed to show. It is however part of who we all are, and something we need to make space for.

All too often, anger is used as a justification for physical violence and verbal attacks. Where this comes up in a domestic abuse or workplace bullying context, what evidence we have suggests that the angry aggressors know what they’re doing. They aren’t out of control. Many aggressors will deliberately work themselves into a state of rage that they think justifies what follows. I can’t recall details of the study but I remember more than a decade ago reading work about male prisoners, who admitted that they often fabricated the appearance of rage to justify and get away with attacking their partners. Clearly this is inexcusable.

Rage does have good uses, though. The feeling of rage shows us when our boundaries have been violated, and can help us hold those boundaries firmly in face of threats. Anger is a good and natural response to cruelty and injustice. The trick is channelling those feelings into something productive. That might mean protest and campaigning, and using rage to fuel other kinds of practical actions that push for change.

I used to channel anger into cutting wood, many years ago. As a teen it used to mostly go into drumming, and into thrashing out Beethoven’s angry chords on the piano. Rage can translate into art in all sorts of ways, and that in turn can both help re-assert violated boundaries, and to protect them. Rage transformed into creativity can bring solutions to injustice. Too much fighting against something is exhausting and demoralising, but well handled rage can turn into the emotional strength not merely to react, but to fight for something. When we’re focusing on what we value, it is easier to sustain the work we need to do, be that around protest, resisting oppression or making radical change.

I do write in anger, sometimes. I’ve written a fair few blog posts because there were things that filled me with a fury I had no other way of processing. Most of the time I try to turn that anger into something that can help make change, rather than just flailing about impotently. But, I’m human, I don’t always manage things as well as I’d like to. So be it. 

There is power in anger. Used well, it can get a lot done. I’m not ashamed of my anger, and a lot of the time I’m actively proud of where it takes me and what I’ve done with it. Anger turned inwards is always a messy, problematic thing, but when I’ve taken my rage and worked it into something productive, I’ve managed to do some powerful things. What starts as fury doesn’t always show up that way, so it may not always be obvious to people watching, whether I or anyone else has started out doing something because they were cross. Joining OBOD all those years ago was driven in part by anger, in part by distress. Rage led me to something really good there – as it often will when given the space.

No emotion is ever wrong. It’s what we choose to do with it that matters most.

One Good Day

It’s good to pause and take stock of the journey. Our lives will seldom be straightforward progress narratives. For the people whose health is deteriorating, this process of looking at the journey is a really hard one, and can be painful. Whether it’s better to try not to look at what’s happening or whether to face it, is a really personal question and I’m not going to judge anyone’s choices around this. Sometimes it’s possible to have a better quality of life if you aren’t studying your trajectory.

Those of us who have the privilege of getting old will face both that issue of trajectory, and the question of what time ahead of us looks like compared to the time we’ve already had. One of the ideas I’ve been working with for some time is that it is worth putting in the effort just to have one good day, one day that was better than it might have been. Even if you can’t re-write the story of your life.

This is a conclusion I came to while taking on older cats, at least one of whom had suffered considerably. I can’t undo what’s been done. I might not be able to compensate for it. But if there can be good days, or months or even some good years, that’s worth putting up a fight for. It’s worth trying for that, however brief it may be. I think the same thing applies to humans. No matter what’s behind us, it is worth trying for a future that has the greatest possible good in it.

Where there’s life, there are reasons to try. It’s never too late. It’s never the case that the history of grim or dysfunctional things destroys the point of trying to make anything good in the future. There is never a point at which it makes sense to give up entirely. For the elderly rescue cat, one good day is a miracle, and can open the way to more good days. Whatever the present looks like, it is always worth trying to do the best you can with whatever is ahead of you. Sometimes, of course, winning isn’t possible, some things cannot be fixed. Nevertheless, there’s always something worth trying for.

Sometimes, one good day is also, everything.

Expressing difficult emotions

Recently on the blog comments I was treated to a little lecture about how harmful it is to wallow in misery. It struck me that this would be a good topic to explore. It’s not an unusual thing to hear if you’re a depressed person dealing with people who apparently have decent mental health. Of course the primary function of this is often to make the depressed person shut up so that they do not make the comfortable person uncomfortable. Or perhaps it’s about not requiring the person who is in denial to think too much.

It is essential to be able to talk about how you are feeling in whatever ways makes sense to you. Anyone who denies you that space is someone to avoid – they may have their own issues, and sometimes stepping away from each other is the best choice. Working through your feelings is essential for getting on top of them, locking it away will only make it worse.

There are a lot of productive ways of expressing emotions. Pouring it into music, art or poetry can be a really good ideas, as can venting it through physical expression. I’ve found dance exceedingly helpful for processing things I couldn’t think my way out of. Difficult emotions can take time and effort to process – significant injuries, traumas, profound losses – we don’t automatically integrate these things or know what to do with them. Coming to terms with anything of this ilk takes time and most of us do better when we can engage consciously with those feelings.

Accusations of wallowing, or loving your own misery or simply making a fuss for attention is one that most depressed people are familiar with. It adds to the burden of distress. Having it thrust at you as an attempt at help, or for your own good just adds to the unpleasantness. So let me be clear that this is never about the good of a person who is suffering. Needing to spend time with difficult things you are feeling is not a moral failing or some kind of character flaw. It’s doing the necessary work that moves you, inch by inch, towards healing.

When we are accepting of each other’s emotions, we lend support to that healing process. When we listen, show care, and make space for whatever anyone else is struggling with, we help each other. I’m constantly grateful to the people in my life who share their own experiences –  l learn from all of that, and I know that in turn what I share of my own journey is at least occasionally useful to others.

I’m not sure what to do with people who respond to distress with unpleasantness. While I’m deeply invested in the idea of community resilience and mutual support, I think we’re all entitled to have and hold boundaries. There’s a very strong likelihood that the people who want to shut down others for expressing distress are speaking from places of having their own hurt, and unmet need. Perhaps they find some comfort or sense of self worth in hurting people who dare to express hurt. I don’t know and thinking about it taxes the limits of my empathy, I’m finding. 

The question of how best, as communities, to take care of the people who have little or no ability to participate well in community is something that impacts on all of us. How do we respond to people who come intent on causing hurt? Even if we’re confident they do so from a place of distress? I don’t have any decent answers to this right now, and I think I’ll need to be better resourced in myself before I can explore this in any significant way.

Processing Emotions

We handle things better when we can process them around the time when they happen. Some emotions lend themselves to that, because they invite expression – a surfeit of joy is seldom a problem. It also helps when we’re in situations where other people can easily see what’s going on for us and support us in what we need to do.

Processing emotions for things other people can’t see can be especially hard. Anything that involves the death of dreams can be difficult to explain to anyone watching. It’s harder to process your feelings when what you’re expressing doesn’t make sense to the people encountering you.

It is of course also impossible to process things when you have to focus all your energy on dealing with problems. People who appear to be coping in the short term can end up falling apart when things are ok again, simply because they have the space to do it. This is more likely for people who step up in a crisis and who shoulder responsibility and take care of others. It can be deeply disconcerting for the person experiencing it, and for anyone watching.

If you are the sort of person who spends all their time putting out fires – literal and metaphorical – then you might think of yourself as unbreakable. You might experience yourself as being incredibly tough and resilient. However, it’s when the quiet finally settles that all the unprocessed feelings come home to roost. 

One of the takeaways from this is to offer support to people regardless of whether they seem to be in trouble. The person leading and fixing things might well need some back-up. Knowing that it’s a possibility makes it easier to navigate – being ambushed by emotions only adds to the confusion. Delayed emotions don’t always show up in a way that makes any kind of sense. There’s quite a lot of information out there about delayed grief, but not so much about other unprocessed emotions surfacing. Although my guess is that anything unprocessed is probably going to come back with a significant side-order of grief anyway.

If you find yourself with a whole array of emotions that make no sense, it can feel like you’re going mad. You aren’t, these will just be things you didn’t get to deal with at the time, and the odds are they are surfacing because you do have time to deal with them. Make space for them, and see if you can channel them into something – move with them, let them emerge as sounds, or songs, or other actions. Write them as journals or as poetry – whatever works to help get them out of your body and make some kind of sense of them.

Be kind to yourself if this sort of thing happens to you. Be patient. Give yourself room to feel, and breathe and it will all eventually resolve into some kind of coherence.

Doing nothing

I write this on a grey November day, emotionally exhausted and bodily out of sorts. That’s not an especially unusual state to be in. The urge is always to try and push through, be productive. In part this is because doing things that feel useful often helps me ward off the dread and anxiety that always follow hot on the heels of exhaustion.

What do I have to give, right now? Not a lot. My body needs me to show up for gentle, physical stuff, I can feel that. My brain craves things that will soothe it, rather than the relentless drive to do more. I’m at the tail end of a project, and I’ve been dealing with hypervigilance, the brain that ran in overdrive for days has to slow down, or stop.

Outside, the rain is falling softly. The yellow leaves show brightly against the grey sky. There is still greenery, and it is late in the year for so many leaves to still be green. It’s one of the kinder faces the climate crisis wears. My cat is watching the rain, watching the world go by, and I think he has the right of it. I’m typing slowly, turning my attention to the window over and over. It is a day for needing soft things and peacefulness.

Sometimes you have to decide that you have done enough, and give yourself the space to do nothing.

Under-stimulation and insufficiency

Some unmet needs are really easy to spot, especially if you are used to having them met. For the person who normally eats well, hunger is self announcing. For the person who has always eaten a poverty diet, malnutrition seems normal. Often when we’re thinking about our own needs all we have to measure things against is our own experience and if that’s always been lacking, we may have no idea what sufficiency would look like or how far from it we are.

Being under-stimulated is hard to spot. Especially if, like me, you don’t really know what you’d be like if you were operating in optimal conditions. One of the things I’m exploring at the moment is the possibility that under-stimulation is having a serious impact on my mental health. 

I’ve known for some years that I need a considerable amount of brain stimulation in order to feel ok. I need ideas, challenges, and things that stretch me. I can keep myself functional on this front by engaging with the right content and actively seeking ideas. I do better when I have people to interact with who challenge me and make demands that I have to stretch to respond to. I’m finding a lot of what I need there in my creative family and I feel I’ve got that in hand. I’m not convinced I’m at an optimal level yet, but I’m working on it.

I’m also confident at this point that I’m a high maintenance person emotionally. I need a great deal of emotional intensity in my life, while also needing to avoid drama. I can meet some of that emotional need through my creative life. I find I need multiple deeply involved emotional relationships in order to function at all. (As an aside for people who don’t know my circumstances, I’m married to one of my creative collaborators.) I think at this point I understand broadly speaking what I need to function, and I haven’t figured out what an optimal state would look like.

My current guess is that where I’m falling down is on the body stuff. I suspect I’m just not getting enough body feedback most of the time and that this is a major contributor to my not functioning. Being ill has limited what I can do with my body in the last few years and that’s clearly a contributing factor. I also tend to dissociate when I’m stressed and I expect that’s making everything worse.

We tend to think of mental health as being entirely separate from body stuff, as though these are two entirely different systems. When body stuff does make it into the mental health conversation, it’s mostly about just getting the basics right – food, exercise and avoiding addiction. I’ve not seen much at all about getting beyond that and exploring what your body might need and how that impacts on mental health too.

Having come to the conclusion that I’m a really high maintenance person in all other regards, I suspect it’s just as true of the physical side of myself. I need to reclaim the things that I used to do – walking and dancing especially – that give me the body feedback I need. Ideally I need to get back to being able to swim, moving in water has always been good for my mental health. I’m considering my options.

Seeking wellness

This is more of a checking in sort of blog post, because there’s so much going on for me emotionally that I don’t have space to think about anything else. I usually try and process my feelings into something useful before I write about them, but that’s not how today is going to work.

I talk about mental health issues a lot, because that form of ill health looms very large in my life. So much of this comes down to my sense of self and the amount of self hatred I carry. I didn’t come to that on my own. For reasons, I depend a lot on external validation, and if the feedback I’m relying on gives me the feeling that I’m awful and a failure, I’m in trouble.

This might sound like a rather too obvious thing to write, but it has finally occurred to me that I get a vote in all of this. I can pick the people who do external validation for me. I don’t have to assume that the most critical voices are the fairest or the most accurate. I don’t have to continue struggling with the versions of me that I’ve been offered by the people who liked me least or thought least of me. I don’t have to keep taking that inside.

There are people in my life who reflect back versions of me that I like. There are spaces where I can be a person I rather like being. The impact on my mental health of being able to do that is huge. I struggle with feeling good enough, but not all the time, not in all contexts.

It is really difficult to feel good about yourself if you are in spaces that undermine your confidence. Even a person with good self esteem will be ground down if they spend enough time in a shitty workplace, or an abusive relationship. No one is immune to this. If you start out better resourced, you’ll be able to hold out for longer, but any of us can be crushed given enough pressure and time. Avoiding that is something best handled in teams.

Art and emotion

I’m writing this post on a bad day. I’m listening to the music that mattered to me in my teens, partly as a way of holding myself together, partly for comfort. This is hardly an unusual thing to do. Music has a huge power to connect us to different times and places in our own history. A song can bring back a whole summer, or a friendship circle. A song can represent a relationship, and all too often when relationships go wrong, it’s music we turn to for comfort.

There’s something uniquely powerful about being held for a few minutes by a stranger’s musical exploration of heartbreak. It eases the feelings of being alone in that, recognising our shared humanity as we suffer. 

People tend not to reflect much on happiness. When we’re happy, we just get on with it, usually. There isn’t the same urge to reflect and to try and understand why we are happy, or what happened to put us in this state. Grief and pain tend to invite introspection and because of that, we can end up seeing them as more intellectually meaningful states while our less considered happiness can seem trivial. This in turn informs how we value certain kinds of art – things that challenge us and reflect distress are often seen as more valuable than art forms that are designed to cheer and comfort.

We need all of the things. We need comfort, and reflection. We need things that lift our spirits and help us process our grief. None of these things is intrinsically more arty or important than any other. Good art is about being human, being real, and making sense of whatever comes our way. Of all the feelings we might have, happiness can be the most ephemeral and hardest to reach for. We live in a state of grief and loss, killing our own home and with most of us suffering immensely from the horrors of late stage capitalism. Right now it’s easy to create and share expressions of distress. Perhaps what we most need are truly heroic acts of creativity that show us how to feel something other than despair.

Problematic coping mechanisms

CW addiction, self harm, suicide, eating disorders

Often, the things people do to survive dire situations are of themselves problematic. When you have to weather hideous things, keep going entirely on willpower, survive things that you find unbearable and you don’t have the resources to do that well, the tactics themselves can be messy.

By these means, a person can end up with an eating disorder, addictions, unhealthy relationship strategies, self harming issues and other things that from the outside look like the problem. The choices we make in order to keep going don’t always make sense to anyone else.

Trying to fix a coping mechanism doesn’t actually solve much. It may put pressure on a person who is in a lot of trouble to put down one of the few tools that helps them cope. Self harming looks nasty, but a lot of people do it because it helps them not kill themselves. The self harming is not the problem to solve, here.

It’s important, if you’re trying to help/ heal another person, to understand what’s going on with them first. Make an alcoholic stop drinking and you might kill them. Some addictions need a careful weaning strategy. If a person isn’t eating because food is the one thing they feel they can control, then their relationship with food is not the thing that urgently needs fixing. 

Trying to help someone when you don’t understand what you’re seeing can do more harm than good. It is important not to centre how you feel about someone else’s problematic coping mechanism. If you feel unhappy because you’re seeing something nasty, please don’t assume that making yourself more comfortable actually solves the problem. You may be seeing the things that are keeping that other person alive and able to function, and however messy that is, demanding that they give up their survival tools is not a good place to start.

If you can’t imagine the kind of horror that a person might be experiencing such that hurting themselves is actually helping them cope with it, then honestly you aren’t well placed to tell them what they should be doing. It’s really important to listen, and to establish what would most help to keep them safe. It might not be what you think it is. 

It’s not good asking a person to give up their survival strategies when they’re still dealing with the things that make those necessary. Sort out the underlying issues first. When people know they are safe, it’s much more realistic to then ask what might be done about the less than ideal coping mechanisms that got them to a place where they had more options.

Finding courage

Back in the summer I started asking questions about the nature of courage. I’ve struggled with fear, anxiety, terror and paralysis for years. I used to be a much bolder person, more willing to take risks and to trust my instincts, and I’d lost that part of myself.

Recent months have taught me some things about courage that it might be useful if I share.

It’s far easier to be brave when other people support you with their belief. When other people invest you with their trust, faith, confidence and things of that ilk, it’s easier to hold some sense of being worth that. It’s also easier to be brave for other people than as some kind of solitary project. Humans are communal creatures, and community can bring out the best in us. Being heroic for someone is considerably easier than just trying to generally speaking ‘be heroic’.

The other community aspect is that being brave on your own is exhausting. Being brave as part of a community means taking shifts, propping each other up, hauling each other through things and not having to be brave about bloody everything all of the time. Courage as a community project is way more sustainable because the courage can continue far beyond what any one person can manage or carry. If someone is able to be brave, there’s scope for everyone to keep moving, often. We can take it in turns to be bold for each other.

Courage is not of itself all about fear or challenge. You don’t have to be afraid first to be bold in meaningful ways. Courage is a state of readiness to act, to risk, to jump, and to be informed by your sense of honour. It takes courage to live with honour. Without courage to enable you to manifest what you believe through your actions, honour is just a nice set of ideas. Courage is more than a principled way of living, it’s part of what gives a person the willingness to be active in the world.

It is much easier to be courageous when you can see yourself moving towards something. Without vision, without a sense of direction, what is there to be courageous for? Granted, you can fight to keep going and fight to survive, but when that looks like more of the same, pointlessly for as long as you can bear to live, it is hard to keep courage alive in your heart. We can’t always be fighting against things, that leads to exhaustion and despair. For courage to thrive in your heart you have to have things you are fighting for. It is not enough simply to resist.

I’ve been re-building my courage in recent months. I’ve had help. There are things, people, possibilities and opportunities I want to move towards, and that’s meant changing how I act and how I relate to the world. There are people who definitely do need me to be stronger and more courageous for them, and that’s been a huge source of inspiration. There are people who will hold me when I don’t have it in me to be bold, and who help me get back on my feet when I lose my confidence. 

The more I look at these issues the more convinced I am that community is a key part of everything that I want to do differently. I’m my best self through my relationships with other people and I have most to offer when I don’t feel like I have to somehow be and do everything.